John Munyes – The soft spoken manager

As Head of State, his persona was the opposite of that of most of the people who helped him ascend to power. When the politics of the day demanded one shouts out loud, Kibaki whispered. When they demanded abrasion, Kibaki applied a soft touch. And when the times settled for political horse-trading in settling on ministers, Kibaki not only honoured agreements but went a step further to choose the most qualified individuals from the names given to him.

Very few individuals in his Cabinet fell short of this general characterisation. John Kiyong’a Munyes, who served in various ministries in Kibaki’s government, fell well within the shadow that the President himself cast.

Munyes is similarly soft spoken. And like the President, is also known to let the work of his hands do the talking. Rarely would he come out to defend himself or add voice into the fires of political debate unrelated to what he was entrusted to do.

Just like Kibaki would never boast of his achievements while president, Munyes too would never openly speak about his accomplishments either as Minister or as a veteran politician. Yet both men, in their own right were near peerless in their circles. They preferred to keep away from the spotlight and get on with the work at hand.

Munyes, a gentle giant with chubby cheeks and deceivingly boyish looks, is naturally self-effacing which might point to the humble beginning of his life. He was born in Lokichar, Turkana North.

All through his childhood, Turkana was talked about by the rest of the country as a near-mythical place somewhere within the borders of the country. At the time, Turkana was almost a bad cliché to anyone who had never ventured to Kenya’s food basket of Kitale, past the hills of Kapenguria and onwards to Turkana, one of the most magical places in the country.

To Munyes, Turkana not only represented the cradle of mankind, but its vastness painted a picture of the possibilities that life could offer for a young child with ambitions to go further than most.

There were not many options in education for a young Munyes. When the time came for children to stop tending their father’s goats and start formal education, the choice of primary schools was limited.

One of the available choices was Lokitaung Primary School where Munyes started his elementary education. Transitioning from primary to secondary school was not an easy choice to make. Having completed his primary education, Munyes was already one among the very few native sons and daughters who made this journey and choosing to go to high school could certainly mean crossing the Rubicon for him.

Primary education hadn’t done enough to quench his thirst for knowledge, and he proceeded to Lodwar High School for secondary education. It is here that his true sense of purpose was born and after the final examinations there was no debate in his mind about what he wanted to do.

“I knew very early on that I was meant to serve the people,” he said during the vetting of nominated Cabinet secretaries at parliament in 2018. The committee was looking into his suitability to serve as a Cabinet Secretary.

“So I went straight into charity work,” he said of his time after high school.

His journey in charity broadened his horizons and enriched his experiences. As a young man, Munyes worked for several non-governmental organisations at this time, including the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Oxfam and Practical Action, and for the Catholic Church.

Like many professionals of his generation who had now travelled the world and seen functional systems, he was bitten by the bug of change. The only thing that could ease the itch from this was elective politics and in 1997, the Electoral Commission of Kenya created Turkana North Constituency.

At the time, the call to service had outgrown the confined spaces of the aid sector, so he chose to cross over to public service and make a stab at being the first Member of Parliament (MP) for the newly created constituency. While he was doing this, the man who would later appoint him to the Cabinet was making a second attempt at the Presidency.

Elective politics proved to be a different ball game from the life he had enjoyed as a high-flying employee within the aid sector. He learnt quickly that although PowerPoint presentations were good and boardroom strategies seemed invincible, nothing would get him ahead of the campaigns like old school door-to-door campaigning.

Those who have worked with him or against him say that one of Munyes’s key strengths is his ability to connect with people and prioritise their needs. In that election, Munyes won against a handful of other candidates. His future boss, vied for the Presidency on a Democratic Party (DP) ticket during that same year and lost. The two men would, however, find their fates interlocked five years later.

In the years that followed his election, Munyes proved to be an asset to the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy-Kenya (FORD-Kenya), rising to become the party’s chairman in a few years. In 2002, Munyes defended his seat, again on a FORD-Kenya ticket, and recaptured it amid stiff competition.

At the time, there was a shift in national politics as well. The country was going through a revitalised season and Kibaki, was in a now or never run at the Presidency. Kibaki and many of his supporters believed he would be third time lucky.

Unseating the ruling party, however, was not going to be an easy task. In 2002 President Daniel arap Moi was celebrating 24 years in power. His party, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) had been in power for much longer. No other political party had occupied the top seat. In fact, at some point in history, even imagining a KANU-free future would have been interpreted as high treason.

Beating KANU needed the support of the other opposition parties and for the first time in history, political leaders found a common purpose and coalesced around Kibaki. FORD-Kenya, led by Michael Kijana Wamalwa, who would become Vice President under Kibaki, agreed to be part of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) — a collage of opposition political parties.

Kibaki’s victory in the December 2002 General Election meant that the trappings of power had to be shared among the other political parties that supported his campaign for, were the Opposition to crumble and go it alone as they had done in the previous two elections, KANU and their candidate Uhuru Kenyatta, would surely have won.

On 3 January 2003 Kibaki named his 22-member Cabinet, handing out the lion’s share of senior posts to his Opposition allies and defectors..

Still confined to a wheelchair, as he recuperated from a road accident that had occurred towards the tail-end the election campaign of 2002, Kibaki announced his new team at a news conference at State House in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

As widely predicted, Kibaki confirmed Wamalwa, a British-trained lawyer, as his Vice President. Wamalwa was a key player in NARC’s historic election victory, on 27 December, over KANU, the legacy of outgoing President Moi and his hand-picked successor, Kenyatta.

More importantly though, was that Wamalwa was Munyes’ party leader at FORD-Kenya and soon his loyalty and determination to stick with the party was rewarded. He was named as Assistant Minister in the Ministry of Water and Irrigation, capping off a fine campaign in public service.

His constituents at the time thought this would cap his impressive rise to the top. But Munyes was only getting started. A Cabinet reshuffle resulted in him being appointed Minister in the Office of the President in charge of Special Programmes.

Munyes took up this position when Kenya was facing one of its worst climate crises — a prolonged drought that started in 2004 and stretched well into 2006. As Minister, he was responsible for making sure Kenyans emerge from the famine with as little damage as possible.

His longest stint, though, in the Kibaki Cabinet was as Labour Minister, a position he held for the 5 years that followed the formation of the Government of National Unity, as the coalition government was officially called. The contentious elections of 2007 brought out another side of Munyes.

In the run-up to the 2007 polls, FORD-Kenya supported a Kibaki candidacy and later formed part of the coalition of parties that eventually made up the Party of National Unity (PNU). In the highly charged politics of the day, Munyes campaigned for his re-election and that of Kibaki but rarely antagonised the Opposition.

Although it seemed fashionable to mudsling or badmouth opponents, Munyes, just like Kibaki kept it civil and banked on his development record and connection with the people to carry the day. Both he and Kibaki were re-elected. Munyes, for his loyalty to the Presidency, was named Minister for Labour. He occupied the seat for the duration of Kibaki’s second term.

Even when things fell apart within the coalition government, Munyes kept his position.

The years that he has served as Minister have had a noticeable effect on his personality. From a self-effacing individual, over the years Munyes has become comfortable enough to show outright ambition about wanting bigger and better things in life.

Unlike during Kibaki’s tenure, Munyes now freely expresses ambition for bigger office and he has learnt that it is not enough to let your work do the talking. Once in a while, as a politician, it is important to talk about yourself and if you don’t, opponents may just take your laid back attitude for a weakness and run you out of town.

He may have learnt the art of self-defence the hard way.

Being a leader from a frontier region, Munyes has always been involved in peace matters traversing three countries, Kenya, South Sudan and Ethiopia. In 2009 when he was busy dealing with labour unrest, something else was brewing.

Munyes, at the time was not only on his third term as MP, but had held several ministerial positions that enabled him pursue a childhood dream. Growing up as a young Turkana boy, he had always marvelled at the science — although back then it looked more like magic — that kept planes afloat.

His curiosity with airplanes had earlier led him to acquire a six seat Cessna Fixed Wing 6. But what he thought would bring the freedom offered by the open skies came with something else.

In 2009 a delegation of South Sudanese officials wrote to Kenya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs accusing Munyes of spying. According to them, Munyes, who was involved in the South Sudan Peace negotiations was acting as a double agent for the Khartoum government as the two nations discussed a cessation of hostilities.

They insisted that the Cessna plane was one of the payments Munyes received for his espionage for the north. So too were what they termed as ‘several expensive’ properties around the capital.

Munyes fiercely defended himself and vehemently denied the charges. He further clarified that he bought the plane using a loan from a local bank and termed the accusations as the “biggest lie about me as minister”.

The events surrounding the accusations of espionage forced Munyes out of his shell and he quickly shed his laidback demeanour. After all, an election was fast approaching and he needed to be more visible if he were to win the seat that most government officials who served in Kibaki’s last term were coveting — that of Governor.

Kibaki’s exit from government presented Munyes, and many other politicians who had served with Kenya’s third president, with a problem. While he was in government, the political dynamics had shifted considerably.

As a politician, he couldn’t ride on the achievement of a government on its way out. Secondly, the 2010 Constitution had brought with it uncharted waters. He had to choose between being a Minister or an elected politician; he couldn’t be both. And after serving as Cabinet Minister for many years, there was no way he would vie for MP again. In the 2013 elections he vied for the Turkana County Senate seat and won on a FORD-Kenya ticket, where he continued to serve until the 2017 General Election.

In between the elections he was in the news again for something less scandalous than allegations of espionage. While on his way back from a peace building mission in Ethiopia in 2014, Munyes’ bodyguard accidentally shot him in the back while removing his pistol from the holster. Munyes was hurriedly evacuated to Lodwar District Hospital but was later on flown to the Nairobi Hospital where he remained for weeks.

When the 2017 elections came knocking, he was well recovered and ready for the bruising battle. In a season underpinned by defections, Munyes dumped the party that had built his political career for more than a decade. He decamped from FORD-Kenya to the Jubilee Party with the hope of becoming Turkana’s Governor.

He was beaten by Josphat Nanok who secured a second term as Governor. Munyes challenged Nanok’s election in court.

“The Turkana Elections were conducted in a shambolic manner. There was so much violence, corruption, bribery and intimidation,” he said at the time of filing his case in a Lodwar court. “I believe in the rule of law and we will fight corruption and witchcraft,” he said at the time.

He lost the case.

A year after the polls though, Munyes found himself back in Cabinet. This time as the Cabinet Secretary for Petroleum and Mining after successfully going through the nomination and vetting process.

When auditioning for his new job, he listed some of his key achievements that included midwifing of the 2002 Water Act that eventually resulted in President Kibaki being named the UNESCO Special Envoy for Water in Africa, getting Kenya a seat on the International Labour Organization’s Executive Council as well as moving the National Social Security Fund from a provident fund to a pension scheme.

“I am a reformer. I have introduced reform in all ministries I have worked in,” he said during his 2018 vetting for the Cabinet position.

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